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As the soul empire reaches the half-century mark, founder Berry Gordy looks back at the record label that put Detroit on the musical map and its role in breaking down racial barriers in America

By Susan Whitall  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , DETROIT

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Fifty years ago, Detroit was sharply divided by race. Newspapers still ran ads for “colored” apartments and Detroit police cars weren’t integrated until late December of 1959. It wasn’t until 1961 that a progressive new mayor, Jerry Cavanagh, promised to fight segregation in Detroit’s neighborhoods and public institutions.

Against this unforgiving backdrop, the prospects of one young black man, Berry Gordy Jr, were less than stellar. Gordy had given up boxing (too violent), quit his Ford factory job (too boring) and failed as a record store owner. He sold songs to singer Jackie Wilson, but didn’t make any money at it. At the age of 31, the divorced father of three was broke and out of a job.

Still, on Jan. 12, 1959, the Gordy family loaned Berry Jr US$800 from the family fund so that he could start a record company.

Fifteen years later, Motown Records had become the largest African-American-owned business in the US, turned Detroit into a music mecca and made stars of Detroit-born talent like Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson. Today, Gordy and Universal Motown Records will launch the 50th anniversary of the iconic Detroit label, which includes an event today at the Motown Historical Museum featuring Duke Fakir of the Four Tops, city and state dignitaries and others. Today will also be declared “Motown Day” by city and state officials.

Gordy sold Motown in 1988 for US$61 million, but the energetic 79-year-old is still busy promoting and defending the company he founded. He’s about to get busier. Along with launching Motown 50, he’s overseeing a Broadway musical based on his life and a multi-part documentary film on what he did “and how I did it” at Motown, using extensive footage filmed during Motown’s heyday. He’s also emerging from retirement to manage a new singer, “one of the greatest I’ve ever met,” whom he isn’t ready to reveal just yet.

Gordy exudes the same confidence he did when building his music empire.

“I never had any big setbacks to knock my ego down, because I was confident almost to the point of being cocky,” Gordy said, speaking by phone from his Los Angeles office. “People would say, ‘What makes you so sure?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t think it, I know it.’”

Back in 1959, Gordy was blissfully unaware of how difficult a task was before him, launching a record company in a city still recovering from the 1958 recession.

“I didn’t know enough about economics to know,” Gordy said. “I was involved in my stuff, and I took very little interest in anything other than my creative activities and the artists I worked with. I know the times were what they were, but I guess in those days I was more concerned about the whole social situation and the racial tensions. Now I’m a lot more aware of economics and how the whole thing works.”

Motown launched immortal artists like Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, but it was also a symbol of black achievement and a big part of Detroit’s international image.

“People identify Motown with the city of Detroit, and the city of Detroit with Motown,” said former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer.

They still do; the Motown Historical Museum is one of the region’s most-visited tourist destinations, with visitors coming from as far away as the South Pacific.

Such an institution was built not only by Motown’s stars, but by many people behind the scenes. One of Gordy’s goals for Motown 50 is to point out the hard work of the unsung heroes, the secretaries, accountants and others.

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